Rock-a-doodle was a Don Bluth animated film that was released in 1992, and is generally considered to mark the beginning of the downward trend in Bluth films which was continued by things like A Troll in Central Park and The Pebble and the Penguin. Rock-a-doodle is, perhaps rightly, criticized for a number of things, but I am not part of the critical majority. Rock-a-doodle has always been and likely will always be one of my top movie picks. Something about it resonates with me.
Rock-a-doodle is a very loose adaptation of the legends of Chanticleer, the archetype of roosters whose crowing raises the sun. The Chanticleer of this movie is also gifted with a singing voice reminiscent of Elvis Presley, and so after he does his morning duty of raising the sun for the farm he lives on, he spends the rest of the day entertaining the farm animals with music. One night, however, the Grand Duke of Owls, who hates the sun and most forms of light, engineers a plot to trick the animals into thinking Chanticleer is a fraud and drive him out. Chanticleer goes to the city to become his world’s version of Elvis, while the farm remains in darkness and unending rain.
Cut to a farm in the real, live-action world. The story as I just outlined it is being read as a bedtime story to a kid named Edmond. By coincidence, Edmond’s home is also being assaulted by torrential rains and possible flooding, and his mom is compelled to leave the story unfinished to rush out and help her husband and older two boys corral animals and set out sandbags. Edmond wants to help, but being only about five or six he’s told to stay put. The kid eventually gets the idea to try and call for Chanticleer’s help, apparently figuring an early sunrise will chase off the rainstorm. While Edmond’s shouting out his window, a bolt of lightning hits a nearby tree, sending a big branch through the window. Edmond comes to to find the Grand Duke of Owls stalking into his room with murderous intent. After a lecture on not interfering, Dukey uses his magic breath to first convert the bedroom from live action to cartoon, and then turns Edmond into a kitten. After shenanigans with other characters from the storybook and a flashlight, the Grand Duke is forced to retreat and Edmond joins the dog Patou, the mouse Peepers, and the magpie Snipes in traveling to the city to bring Chanticleer home. Thier journey is fraught with danger from the Duke’s inept but admirably persistent nephew Hunch and Chanticleer’s agent, Pinkey, who happens to be in the Duke’s pocket.
I’ll admit that Rock-a-doodle is not one of Don Bluth’s masterpieces. It can’t hold a candle to masterpieces like Land Before Time and The Secret of NIMH in terms of story, characters, and especially coherency of plot. Aside from Hunch and his amusingly pathetic attempts to win his uncle’s favor by killing Edmond and company, the characters don’t stand out much from each other. Of the four heroes, Edmond is defined by his dedication to the quest and a speech impediment that occasionally renders his lines almost incomprehensible, Patou’s entire schtick is being unable to tie his shoes, and Peepers and Snipes exist mostly to, well, snipe at each other with insults. Oh, and Snipes develops an obsession with lasagne at one point. There are songs in the movie, befitting the fact that Chanticleer is basically Elvis as a rooster, but most of them are covered up by dialogue or by narration courtesy of Patou. Said narration occurs throughout the film, including the live-action segments, and that combined with the final segment of the film where a restored human Edmond dances among the cartoon farm animals has created confusion in many critics as to whether or not the movie was just a dream after the lightning strike.
So, why do I like Rock-a-doodle os much despite it’s flaws? Some might say it’s just nostalgia talking, but I think it’s something deeper than that. I first saw Rock-a-doodle when I was four or five years old and my vivid imagination was starting to bloom. That movie, strange and confusing as it is to a more developed mind, resonated with me; it all made perfect sense to me. The basic idea driving the movie’s plot - a kid inserted into his favorite story - became the basis of my own imaginary adventures for years to come and still has a small influence on the stories I like to create. Through the years I’ve frequently returned to Rock-a-doodle with the goal off making sense of it in new ways. For the longest time I worked on the theory that Edmond’s world and Chanticleer’s were connected by a portal contained in the storybook and which was torn open violently by the lightning (which the Grand Duke may or may not have caused). That explanation series well enough from a perspective inside the movie’s world, but I now have another one that at least pretends to be more external and objective: The entire movie - not just the events between the lightning strike and Edmond waking up back home - is from the perspective of Edmond’s young, active imagination, which does not perceive any distinction between reality and fiction. To Edmond, Chanticleer and company are just as real as the storm outside his window, and all the magic in the storybook applies in all locations including his home. His subconscious may have added details to the original storybook - there’s no indication in the introduction that the Grand Duke has magic breath - but such details are the kind of crazy things a little kid can imagine. That final sequence that so confuses everyone can be explained as Edmond’s imagination taking to forefront again once he’s alone in his room, but through conscious effort on his part this time. That’s something that happened to me as a child when a fanciful idea struck me hard.
The thing that really ties my theory together is the presence of Patou as narrator throughout the movie. According to my research, the narration was added almost as an afterthought in response to test audience reactions, but aside from covering up parts of some songs it does not feel out of place in the final product. Whoever was responsible for writing those lines took care to make them relevant to the scene and clear enough to help a little kid like me understand the action better. The narration also blurs the line between reality and fiction for the viewers in the same way the line is blurred for Edmond. I would even go so far as to claim that Patou’s narration is, in-universe, the product of Edmond’s mind trying to link the Chanticleer story, the moments before the lightning strike, and the following dream into single cohesive story. Perhaps Edmond’s dream included the narration and his imagination retroactively added some to the preceding events, and what we see is the end result.